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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



The Growth of the New Testament

John M. Court

Introduction

To speak about the growth of the New Testament essentially acknowledges the fact that here is no single, unitary, and static text, but rather an emerging and developing assemblage, or library, of texts. When we speak in this way, we recognize the need to reconstruct a historical perspective, from such resources as may be available, within which individual texts are identified, and their movements and possible interactions are charted. Even in the present age of critical study of the Bible, when literary rather than historical readings are favoured, the broadest kind of historical perspective is still a prerequisite for this particular topic.

But it is this historical perspective which actually constitutes the problem for us, because different reconstructions can identify the important constituent texts quite differently. For instance, in 1792 Edward Evanson identified ten New Testament books as belonging to the earliest period, the apostolic age: Luke–Acts, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation (chs. 4–22). Forty years later, Ferdinand Christian Baur of Tübingen would ascribe to the apostolic period only five: namely, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Revelation. By contrast, E. Earle Ellis (1998: 87) stated that ‘there are strong arguments for dating the composition of the New Testament writings, with the exception of the Gospel and letters of John, during the first Christian generation, say, about A.D.50–70’—so twenty-three out of a possible total of twenty-seven.

‘The wellspring of the New Testament was a fountain of collective memory that found its origin in the life and teachings of Jesus. Papias called it “a voice that lives and abides” ’ (Baird 2002: 11). This is the voice which, for example, J. Arthur Baird sought to identify, in written memoir and underlying oral communication, within the material of the gospels and early Christian tradition. He sought to demonstrate a trajectory which leads from the teachings of Jesus, moving outwards to narratives about Jesus. The central layer of the message is the ‘holy Word’, on top of which are other levels represented by narrative, gospel, and traditions. Theological changes (‘shifts’) are involved at each level, as ultimately the Word is applied to doctrinal, ethical, and ecclesiastical concerns. Baird did not regard these changes as sinister and manipulative, but rather as a natural evolution of the message in relation to the changing needs and circumstances of the Church, and effectively therefore a witness to continuity.

A broadly similar emphasis on these salient features of the situation in which the New Testament grew historically was provided by Rowan Williams (2001: p. xxviii, writing in the different context of a comment on Richard Hooker): ‘The Bible is a book always being read by a historical community, whose corporate sense of what Scripture says, and skills in “translating” scriptural doctrine into new situations, must equally be taken with theological seriousness’ (my emphasis).

Already we can identify certain fundamental questions which must be addressed, in order that the origins and development of the New Testament can be discussed, on the basis of evidence for what we know, rather than on what we assume we know:

  • 1. In its most significantly formative stages, is the New Testament to be regarded as an oral tradition or as a set of written documents?

  • 2. What would constitute a quotation from this tradition, whether oral or written, so that it would be widely recognized?

  • 3. Does the concept of growth and development in this material entail an identifiable and indeed quantifiable period of time that must elapse for this to take place?

  • 4. Is a cultural transition, a movement from one world to another, necessarily involved in this process of development, so as to be its causal factor? Is the so-called ‘parting of the ways’, between Judaism and Christianity, in this way a significant aspect of the growth of the New Testament?

  • 5. Would it be correct, as Baird suggested, to accord temporal priority to the teaching of Jesus, and to see this as moving logically to a biographical and explanatory interpretation of Jesus in the form of narrative?

  • 6. Do any observations, which we may have, about the current shape of the canon of the New Testament, provide indicators of the shapes and likely priorities in earlier forms of the tradition? Can we do an archaeology of the text, on the basis of its present structure?

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